NC Senate vote means showdown nears on immigration bill

North Carolina State Senate to vote on controversial HB370

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Republican-controlled General Assembly headed for a showdown with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper as a bill that would strong-arm North Carolina sheriffs refusing to cooperate with federal immigration agents neared final passage.

The Senate late Monday approved a measure that would require all county sheriffs to recognize requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold inmates it believes are in the country unlawfully. Sheriffs also would be required to attempt to check everyone in their jails charged with a crime - not just people accused of the most serious offenses- to determine if they are legal U.S. residents.

It would force sheriffs to contact U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement if the immigration status of a prisoner is unclear.

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They would also have to honor ICE detainers. Sheriffs could be removed from office if they willfully neglect or refuse to perform the duties of the office, according to the bill.

Attorney and former Union County District Attorney John Snyder agrees with the sentiment of the bill, but he said there are legal challenges ahead and that the state will lose them.

“What the General Assembly is doing oversteps what I think they can do to an independent constitutional authority, which is the sheriff,” Snyder said.

“The sheriff gets its power from the North Carolina Constitution, not the General Assembly. I don't believe the General Assembly can require the sheriff to comply with a federal program."

The bill's primary sponsor, state Rep. Destin Hall, R-Caldwell, said it would stand against any constitutional critique.

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"The North Carolina Constitution does mention the office of sheriff, however, it's really undisputed that it's the General Assembly's job to make the laws in North Carolina, and it's just simply the sheriff's job to go out and enforce those laws," Hall said.

The bill is a direct response to a handful of recently elected Democratic sheriffs in the most populated counties who announced they wouldn't comply with ICE detainers, which give agents 48 hours to pick up inmates, even though they aren't actual criminal arrest warrants. Bill supporters are unhappy with these sheriffs and believe they should do what nearly all 100 in the state have been doing voluntarily for decades.

Senate approval came hours after Cooper signaled his likely veto of the measure should it reach his desk. Cooper's vetoes can be upheld if Democrats remain united.

Immigrant advocates and allies in the legislature say those living in the U.S. without legal permission would be less likely to report crimes if the bill became law and would be fearful, leading to more dangerous communities.

"Political points in the name of public safety run the risk of putting real lives in danger," Sen. Mujtaba A. Mohammed, a Mecklenburg County Democrat and son of immigrants, told colleagues.

The Senate version says a judge or magistrate would issue an order to hold the inmate under the detainer, rather than direct the sheriff act unilaterally. But civil liberties advocates say the legislation still doesn't provide adequate due process to inmates and is constitutionally flawed.

The new language in the Senate measure led the North Carolina Sheriffs' Association, representing all sheriffs, to support the bill after initially opposing the House version of the bill.